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Filing your tax returns: Get tips to save you money

While no one likes paying taxes, there are lots of ways to reduce them. Here are a few extra tips for filing your taxes.
March 12, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
The deadline for filing your taxes is Tuesday, April 15. If you're confused about filling out your tax forms or you're not sure what deductions you're allowed, here are a few extra tips to lower your taxes and save you money:

Last Minute Advice

- If you haven't contributed to your retirement account, you have until April 15 to open and/or fund a traditional or Roth IRA, or qualified retirement plan such as a 401(k). You can contribute up to $5,000 ($6,000 if you're age 50 or older), or your taxable compensation for the year. Use IRS Form 8880, Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions, to claim the credit.

- If you can't finish your return on time, make sure you file Form 4868 by April 15. You can get up to a six-month extension, giving you until October 15, 2014 to file.

- Filing electronically works best if you expect a tax refund. The IRS processes electronic returns faster than paper ones, so you can expect to get your refund three to six weeks earlier.

- The amount of the standard deduction increased for all taxpayers for the 2013 tax year. If you're single, the standard deduction is now $6,100, up $150 from the previous year. And, if you're married and filing jointly or a qualifying widow or widower, the deduction is $12,200 -- up $300.

- Rules have changed for medical and dental expense deductions for those under 65. You can only deduct medical expenses if they exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. Previously, the law permitted deductions for unreimbursed expenses in excess of 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income.

Saving You Money

- If you are self-employed, you can deduct the cost of health insurance for yourself and your family members. And keep track of car repair bills and how much you spent on gas for business purposes.

- If you're self-employed or employed by a company and use your own car on the job, you can take a deduction for your business travel. Standard mileage rate for business use of a vehicle is 56.5 cents per mile, and 24 cents per mile for medical and moving travel.

- If you purchased a computer or a cell phone that you use for your job, you might be able to claim the business use of the device as a tax deduction. And, you can depreciate the costs over the expected decline in value of the phone or computer over time.

- If you're self-employed, you can set up a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) and contribute as much as 25% of your net earning from self-employment (not including contributions for yourslef), to $51,000 for 2013.

- If you own a business or if your company doesn't reimburse you for business travel expenses, you can deduct airline baggage fees, taxis to and from the airport, shuttle service amd other travel fees on your 1040.

- In the past, people who lost their homes to foreclosure or a short sale, were still taxed by the IRS for the amount they didn't have to pay back. But under the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act and Debt Collection, taxpayers generally can exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence. Up to $2 million of forgiven debt is eligible for this exclusion ($1 million if married filing separately). But it only applies if it's your primary residence, the exception does not apply to second homes or vacation homes.

Charitable Contributions:

- The IRS says for the most part, charitable contributions are only deductible if they're given to a U.S. based nonprofit, not foreign groups that are not recognized as a charitable organization.

- Charitable contributions are deductible only if you itemize deductions using Form 1040, Schedule A.

- For contributions of $250 or more, including cash and property, you must have a receipt from the qualified organization.

- For non-cash donations, you must deduct the fair-market value of the item, not its new retail price. For cash donations, you much have a canceled check or receipt from a non-profit organization that clearly states the donated amount.

- Check the IRS website for a list of qualified organizations: www.irs.gov/app/pub-78.

Job Hunting

- Many unemployed people forget about deductions they're entitled to at tax time.

- Keep track of your job-search expenses. If you looked for a position in the same line of work in 2013, you can deduct job-hunting costs as miscellaneous expenses if you itemize, but the total itemized deductions must exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income. However, you can not deduct if you looked for a job in a new occupation or if there was a substantial break between your last job and your new search.

- Job-hunting expenses incurred while looking for your first job don't qualify.

- Deductible job-search costs include food, transportation and lodging (if your search takes you away from home overnight), along with expenses of printing resumes, business cards, and postage.

Overlooked Deductions

- If you pay your child care bills through a reimbursement account at work you can still qualify for a child care credit. If you use up the maximum through a plan at work but spend even more for work-related child care, you can claim the credit on as much as $1,000 of additional expenses. That would cut your tax bill by at least $200.

- You can claim your parents as dependents on your returns if you're responsible for more than half of their financial support.

- If you paid someone to prepare your taxes last year, you can deduct those fees on your taxes this year.

- If you purchased a home this year, you can fully deduct points in the year. If you refinanced your home, you can deduct any points you paid over the life of the loan.

- The American Opportunity Credit is a tax credit of up to $2,500 for college tuition and related expenses paid during the year. The full credit is available to individuals whose modified adjusted gross income is $80,000 or less ($160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return). Complete IRS Form 8863 and attach it to your personal income tax return to claim the credit.

Common Mistakes

- Keep track of charitable giving. You might need a receipt to prove it. Contributions over $250 require a letter from the charity to substantiate the deduction.

- Make sure to include your W-2 when you send in your taxes. Many taxpayers actually forget to do this and this simple error could cost you in additional taxes plus interest as it could take a long time to process. Don't spend the time and effort to do your taxes only to find that you forgot to send in the paperwork.

- Don't deduct other people's expenses you paid for on your own returns. Even if you're a nice person, the IRS doesn't really care. You can't deduct any expenses for another taxpayer, even if it's for a spouse who is filing separately.

Avoiding an Audit

- Report all of your income. IRS computers cross-check your W-2s and 1099s to make sure your claiming all of your income.

- Pay attention to details. Math errors or incorrect entries of Social Security numbers or tax ID numbers can easily trigger an inquiry into your return.

- Avoid deductions that are audit red flags, including excessive write-offs, large charitable contributions, and filing for a home-office deduction.

Anyone can get free advice from any IRS office, but the lines can be extremely long as it gets closer to mid-April. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) offers free tax help for those making less than $52,000 a year, check the IRS website to find a site near you.

And if you earn less than $58,000 a year, you can e-file your taxes for free through IRS approved websites from several companies including H&R Block, FileYourTaxes.com, Turbo Tax and TaxSlayer.

Useful links:

Internal Revenue Service: http://www.irs.gov

IRS Current Tax Tips: http://www.irs.gov/uac/IRS-Tax-Tips

IRS List of Charitable Organizations: http://www.irs.gov/app/pub-78

IRS Charitable Contribution Tips: http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc506.html

IRS Free Tax Return Preparation: http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Free-Tax-Return-Preparation-for-You-by-Volunteers

IRS Information for e-File: http://www.irs.gov/efile/index.html

IRS Smartphone App: http://www.irs.gov/uac/New-IRS2Go-Offers-Three-More-Features

AARP Foundation Tax-Aide: http://www.aarp.org

TurboTax Tips: http://turbotax.intuit.com

H&R Block Tax Tips and Calculators: http://www.hrblock.com/get-answers/tax-calculators.html

Bankrate 2014 Tax Guide: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/taxes/tax-tips/

Yahoo! Finance Tax Center: http://finance.yahoo.com/taxes/

California Society of CPAs: http://www.calcpa.org


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